The Perfectionism Antidote

In my last blog post, I discussed perfectionism (which, in my opinion, is becoming increasingly prevalent in our society) and why it’s so harmful. I also shared that for much of my life, I was the “poster child” for perfectionism. Yes, my desire to avoid mistakes, mediocrity, and certainly failure pushed me to achieve great things…but they also contributed to a life of stress and anxiety. As a perfectionist, I was never comfortable with where I was, and I certainly didn’t love myself. I was always worried about the future, because I felt that I was only as good as my next accomplishment.

Finally, after experiencing my breakdown, I admitted to myself that my perfectionist tendencies were doing much more harm than good. Over the past decade, I have made an effort to leave this type of unhealthy ambition behind, and to develop a more balanced outlook regarding what I expect from myself.

Working to overcome my perfectionist tendencies has been one of the most liberating things I have ever done for myself. I promise, when you successfully shed the belief that everything in your life has to be just so—or else!—you will feel a weight lifting from your shoulders, too. You will take more risks, have more fun, live in the moment more often, connect with others more effectively, and most of all, experience a ton more relaxation and happiness. I promise! That said, here are a few things you can do to overcome perfectionism:

  • Learn to recognize the signs. In order to change any habit, you must first be able to identify when it’s manifesting. Take a few minutes to list what you actually do and feel when your quest for perfection kicks into high gear. Are you zoom-focused on something in particular? Do you feel anxious and stressed? Does a certain thought play over and over again in your mind like a continuous mental loop? Do you start to ignore other areas of your life? Knowing what the “symptoms” are will help you to consciously recognize when perfectionism is taking over.
  • Ask, “How much is this helping?” I know from experience that perfectionists tend to get bogged down in the details. In more recent years, I have also learned that those nitty-gritty things don’t always matter as much as you think they do. When you notice yourself beginning to obsess, ask yourself, “How much is this helping?” For example, is it worth spending several more hours tweaking a small part of a report to your boss, or would that time be better spent on another project? Often, running this type of cost-benefit analysis in your mind will give you the clarity you need to let go and move on.
  • See goals as guidelines. When perfectionists set goals for themselves, they tend to see any other result as a failure—even if it’s still very positive. Remember, life is unpredictable, and people—as well as what they want for themselves—can and should change as they move forward. That’s why it’s much more helpful to see goals as guidelines instead of harsh, inflexible benchmarks. Use your goals to motivate, inspire, and direct your progress, not as standards by which to negatively judge your achievements and progress. If you do encounter difficulty after difficulty in your pursuit of a goal, try not to see those incidents as reasons why you are failing to measure up. Instead, use them to assess your overall direction and development. Do these challenges reveal skills and abilities you would like to develop further…or are they telling you that you’re driving yourself down a path that isn’t right for you? When the latter option is the answer, don’t force yourself to continue moving in an unhealthy direction.
  • Celebrate successes. When I look back at my career as a student and young professional, I see many, many successes. However, what I don’t see is my younger self celebrating those victories. Instead, I immediately focused my attention on the next challenge and began to worry about the mistakes I might make in the future. I wish I had learned earlier in life how important it is to acknowledge your own accomplishments and reward yourself for them—it raises self-esteem, boosts morale, and reaffirms how capable and valuable you really are.
  • Focus on your strengths. Perfectionists tend to obsess over the areas in which they fall short. However, experience has taught me that you’ll be much happier as well as more effective if you focus your efforts on the areas in which you excel. Plus, when you’re more frequently doing things that you’re good at and that you enjoy, you’ll be able to look at the inevitable mistakes that you will make with a healthier perspective.
  • Get rid of all-or-nothing thinking. Have you ever worked on a project or task that was mostly a success? If you’re a perfectionist, the answer is “no,” because anything that’s not a free-and-clear win is a loss. The problem is, this kind of thinking robs you of so much happiness and fulfillment. The next time you think you have failed, take a second look at what happened. You might even ask a friend or family member to discuss the event or project with you. Try to identify things you did well, progress you made, and lessons you learned—all of which are positive! No, you don’t have to ignore what went wrong, but at the same time, don’t ignore what went right, too!
  • See life as all for one, not one versus all. As I mentioned in my last post, perfectionists have a tendency to isolate themselves from other people. Some compare themselves to others in a negative way and voluntarily withdraw; others are overly competitive in their quest to be the best. If you see yourself taking either one of these routes, make a conscious effort to connect instead. Rather than trying to outdo your coworker, for instance, realize that you’re on the same team and collaborate with each other. (Chances are, you’ll achieve more when you combine your respective talents and abilities!) Or, when you catch yourself listing all of the ways in which you don’t measure up to your running buddy, switch gears. Find out what has helped her to succeed and ask if she’ll help you to improve.

Ultimately, I believe that the best way to overcome perfectionism long-term is to learn how to love and accept yourself simply as you are and for who you are (which, in my opinion, is the very definition of happiness!). The more you value and accept yourself for the unique person you truly are, the less you’ll be driven to draw your self-worth from other areas.

I urge you to practice treating yourself with the same kindness you would show to a beloved friend or family member when you fail to live up to your own expectations. Remember that you are human—which means that you are fallible—so you will always make at least one mistake a day. And that’s okay!

 

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Perfection isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

I’ve been thinking a lot about perfectionism recently. That’s because everywhere I look, I see it in action.

I see thousands of young people desperately striving to compile the “perfect” résumé so they can get into the “perfect” college and eventually get the “perfect” job. I see parents searching for the “perfect” child-rearing methods because they’re terrified of screwing up their kids. I see families spending large amounts of time and money on decorating the “perfect” house, because Pinterest has convinced them that’s how everyone lives. I see professionals in all industries running themselves ragged because they’ve been told that the “perfect” employee never stops leaning in. Most of all, I see a nation of people making themselves unhappy as they try to fix various aspects of themselves, their careers, and their lives.

Trust me, I understand—the first three and a half decades of my life were filled with perfectionism. I told myself that I was working toward better things, greater achievements, and my best self in general, but in truth, I was pushing myself to the brink mentally and sometimes physically. My thoughts were always fixated on how I had fallen short in the past or on what I needed to do in the future. I rarely, if ever, enjoyed the present moment. And there is no doubt in my mind that this perfectionism-driven anxiety was a major contributor to the breakdown I eventually suffered at age 36.

Unfortunately, as I’ve learned through personal experience, our efforts to achieve perfection usually have the opposite effect from what we intend: They contribute to our unhappiness. In general, here are some ways in which perfectionism tends to harm us:

  • It causes a lack of balance. When you are driven to achieve perfection in a certain area, that quest will often come to dominate your thoughts, actions, and intentions. You may neglect other important parts of your life, such as your relationships, health, or career, as you work toward doing or being the best in that one area. An out-of-balance life is inherently unsustainable.
  • It breeds self-destructive habits. The human body and mind were designed to achieve great things, but not to be perfect. When we try to push ourselves beyond nature’s limits, we end up hurting ourselves. The self-destructive habits that perfectionism causes can be mental (e.g., a tendency to obsess about every little mistake), physical (e.g., ignoring your body’s need for fuel and rest as you work on a project), and/or emotional (e.g., constantly feeling unworthy or guilty). Furthermore, perfectionism can drive some people to cope in unhealthy ways. Drinking, gambling, doing drugs, and more can temporarily assuage the negative feelings that result from “not being good enough.”
  • It lowers your self-esteem. It’s simple: We are all fallible. But when a perfectionist inevitably makes a mistake, she doesn’t see the error as a part of being human; she sees it as a personal shortcoming. She’s never satisfied with herself or her accomplishments; instead, she usually feels like a failure. Plus, she’s constantly comparing herself to others whom she believes are “better” than her. Unfortunately, chronic low self-esteem becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: If you believe you can or can’t do something, you’ll almost certainly be right. 
  • It causes you to live in fear. Trust me on this one: While a perfectionist’s life may look enviable from the outside, that person is not experiencing the good life because he feels he is only as good as his last star performance. He is constantly afraid: of failure, of criticism, of making a bad impression, of deadlines, of other people’s judgment, and much more.
  • It reduces opportunity and alienates people. The definition of perfectionism is expecting things to be a certain way and not accepting anything less—qualities that don’t exactly foster community and collaboration. Say, for instance, that someone is a perfectionist at work. Chances are, he won’t be able to effectively work with his colleagues because their contributions will never be exactly right or good enough to meet his high standards.

This person might nag his coworkers and tell them where they’ve gone wrong, or he might keep his mouth shut, then go behind them to make “corrections” on group projects. Either way, he will be seen as judgmental, overly competitive, and/or nitpicky. His insistence on doing things a particular way will eventually cause him to be isolated and ignored because he will be seen as difficult and frustrating to work with.

  • It contributes to anxiety and depression. When you “train” your brain to be consistently worried, stressed, and down on yourself, those unhealthy states of mind become your norm…and they’re known as anxiety and depression.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t try to do and be your best, or to reach your full potential. You should. But I also think that each and every one of us needs to honestly assess our lives to make sure that we haven’t crossed the line from “wanting our best lives” to demanding the impossible from ourselves and others so we have “a perfect life.” That line, thin as it may appear, separates your ability to be happy from constant dissatisfaction, stress, and frustration.

In my next blog post, I will share some tactics that have helped me to overcome my own perfectionistic tendencies and that will enable you to do the same.

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